Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Abstinence Education Debate

The Christianity Today blog for church leaders/pastors, Out of Ur, posted a brief clip of an article regarding the ineffectiveness of Church-based abstinence education programs. The whole post:

"Our collective efforts to deter premarital sex are not that successful: 41 percent of churchgoing, conservative Protestant men's relationships become sexual within one month, barely lower than the national average of 48 percent. We expend so much energy to generate so little difference."

The general tenor of the article seems clear, but without the whole thing it is a little hard to read the author’s full intent. Nonetheless, I would like to push back on a couple of issues this raises.

The Data

First of all, it is not at all clear that abstinence based education is ineffective or even unwanted by teens and families. Some of the newest data gathered by the HHS show not only that families want abstinence education, but that it does appear to be effective in changing the beliefs and behaviors of students.

Teen-sex advocacy groups have pushed for an end to abstinence education funding, despite the fact that a recent HHS study showed most teens and their parents support the core message of the program. The study, The National Survey of Adolescents and Their Parents, was posted Monday to the HHS website after significant grassroots pressure. It calls into question whether recent sex education policy decisions truly reflect cultural norms or clear evidence-based trends. According to the findings, about 70% of parents agreed that it is “against [their] values for [their] adolescents to have sexual intercourse before marriage” and that “having sexual intercourse is something only married people should do.” Adolescents gave similar responses.

There is a tremendous amount of pressure from non-abstinence based programs to ignore this kind of data or rely on older surveys that seem to show a greater support for sexual license. So it is interesting, if not very telling, that it takes pressure to get this kind of information released.

And further (in the link for the “talking points”):

“Abstinence-only program helps kids postpone sex,” read the Reuters headline on February 2, 2010.

A landmark study was released February 1, 2010 that measured three distinct sex education programs, using a randomized control study. It is published in the February edition of Archives of Pediatric & Adolescent Medicine and adds to the growing body of research showing the effectiveness of abstinence education programs. It found that abstinence education was very effective at reducing teen sex and worked better than both “comprehensive” sex education and “safe” sex programs.

The research has been widely covered by every major media outlet, including the Washington Post, The New York Times, and USA Today. Even those who have been hesitant to acknowledge the value of abstinence education in the past have called this study a “game changer.”

This study signifies rigorous research demonstrating the effectiveness of abstinence-centered education and joins 17 other abstinence studies with positive behavioral impact included in the NAEA document, Abstinence Works 2010.

So I don’t think the issue about the effectiveness of abstinence education is nearly as closed as some think it is. But I have another concern beyond the data.

The Value

Even if we can come up with conclusive proof that funding for abstinence-based education is not “producing results,” exactly what kinds of results are our actions bound by? True, the church wants to see a serious decrease in sexual activity in teens, but are we willing to give up the message of sexual purity simply because of some studies funded and promoted by organizations invested in teenage sexuality?

If we give up on the message of sexual purity at an early age, exactly when do we expect young people to “become adults” and suddenly decide on sexually healthy lifestyles? Will it magically happen at 16? 20? 30? 40? If we allow a message of sexual license and birth-control to be their education early on, how can we take ourselves seriously when we want them to be sexually pure in their 20s or when they are married with kids?

The church’s message is either sexual purity or it is not.

The smart abstinence-based education programs will continue to refine and target their message to reach kids when and where they need it and be as effective as possible. And the smart church will not give up on them.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Our Work is Soulish

The pastor lives on the belief that Christ holds everything together.” M. Craig Barnes

That line means more and more to me all the time. What pastors do is not predicated on our abilities to “make things work” or get people to do the things we want them to or look the way we want them to look. Our work is soulish. That means we can’t always see or touch what we work with, and just try and measure success!

The holiday season always makes for a busy benevolence fund, and this season is no exception with life so hard for so many right now. I sat across from a man the other day who had nothing but the clothes on his back and what he had in his hands. As we talked I was torn over what I could do for him. He needed the right place to say so he could look for work. He needed cash for a new ID and food stamps. He needed clothes and food. He simply needed about anything anyone could give him. What on earth could a shepherd of souls give a guy in his situation?

The more I let him talk, the more he revealed about his walk with God. Before he lost everything he called himself a Christian, but he let the simple success of his life become his god and he lost track of the One, True God. His life became wrapped up in his own vices, and they ate him alive. But now, with nothing, God had his attention. God is speaking through His Word like never before. God is waking him up at night to prepare him for what he needs to do. The more I prompted him down these paths, the more he sounded like the Psalmist. Over and over he would say that he was learning that it was better to have nothing and have God than have all the riches in the world and lose his Lord.

Before he left, we were able to find some clothes in the church and I gave him some resources and the number of our food pantry. He’s been there before and he will be back again. We did what we could on that day to help his immediate, physical needs.

But the pastor lives in the belief that Christ holds everything together. It isn’t the food, the half-way house, the clothes we gave him that will hold him together. It is Christ. Maybe he needs to be in the place because that is exactly where God wants him; it is exactly where God can speak to him. And if his future is going to be more God-breathed than his past, he needs to listen to the Lord in his poverty and brokenness before a job and money and a place to live tempt him to forget again.

Pastors and churches do what we can to help the immediate and very real needs of people and families. But if we forget that it is Christ that holds everything together, what have we given anyone?

In Praise of Hospice Care

I had a grandfather and Heather had a grandmother who passed away under hospice care. Elizabeth Edward's recent death has brought the value of hospice care to the top of the news, and that is a good thing. In an article about her death, Eleanor Clift notes:

The experience made me a believer. Tom [Clift's husband] had endured all kinds of draconian treatments. When those treatments were exhausted, and the cancer was advancing, his oncologist suggested hospice. I remember being upset at first because I knew it was the end of the road, but it was time, and for someone whose death is inevitable and imminent, spending those last days at home is the gift that hospice offers. Its holistic approach to health care provides counseling along with pain medication.

Elizabeth was a champion of hospice, both the comfort it brings and the reality that it helped her face. She put it best in a statement meant for hospice and palliative care workers in the fall of '08 when she said, "Throughout my life, both personally and professionally, I have had the opportunity to see how people have been affected by illness and loss and the role the healthcare system may have played as they dealt with change in their lives. I also know that people can find a great deal of hope, even in the most challenging of life's situations. Hospice and palliative care professionals support and care for people at a time when hope can be hard to find. The professionals of NHPCO know more than I will ever know about providing that care; I know more than I wish I knew about receiving it, and I am happy to share my perspective with them."

End of life decisions are very difficult, complicated and heart-wrenching things. Hospice is probably the best option (when available) to provide pain mediation, the presence of family, and dignity.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

I can't come up with a clever title for this one, but it is about another recent set of criticisms of Intelligent Design

I recently ran across a hit piece in the Huffington Post about how Intelligent Design is “losing” Catholics and read through it to find out what it had to say about who was being lost and why. The piece was typical of mass media pieces on ID – full of acerbic ad hominem, false association and characterizations and blanket cruelty. So the piece is of no interest to me except for what it considers “lost” Catholics.

The first example the article cites is from a philosopher, Edward Feser, who writes from a Catholic point of view (I actually find his larger project fascinating). His particular critique is that the ID argument lacks metaphysical teeth and fails to account for God’s continual, efficient causality in the natural world. In comparing it to Paley’s argument he writes:

The problems are twofold. First, both Paleyan “design arguments” and ID theory take for granted an essentially mechanistic conception of the natural world. What this means is that they deny the existence of the sort of immanent teleology or final causality affirmed by the Aristotelian-Thomistic-Scholastic tradition, and instead regard all teleology as imposed, “artificially” as it were, from outside.

The metaphysically necessary connection between the world and God is broken; in principle the world could exist and operate just as it does apart from God.

I find this critique of ID interesting in that I have never run across one of the scientists within the ID movement claiming to make an inherently ontological argument about the continual, metaphysical connection between God and the universe. It seems to me that as the post cited above continues what Feser is really after is a classic critique of arguments for God’s existence not being able to account for the metaphysical complexity of the Christian God. Great. He’s probably right. But that’s not the burden of ID. Feser seems to have erected a straw man and proceeded to knock him down.

The second example Farrell uses in the HP article has all the shock value he wants but none of the follow-through. The physicist, Stephen Barr, writes:

It is time to take stock: What has the intelligent design movement achieved? As science, nothing. The goal of science is to increase our understanding of the natural world, and there is not a single phenomenon that we understand better today or are likely to understand better in the future through the efforts of ID theorists. If we are to look for ID achievements, then, it must be in the realm of natural theology. And there, I think, the movement must be judged not only a failure, but a debacle.

If true, that is serious stuff. A scientific argument that has failed to produce any serious results or insights – bad news. There is a more thorough response to Barr’s criticism here, but I want to address a couple of his theological moves.

The older (and wiser) form of the design argument for the existence of God—one found implicitly in Scripture and in many early Christian writings—did not point to the naturally inexplicable or to effects outside the course of nature, but to nature itself and its ordinary operations—operations whose “power and working” were seen as reflecting the power and wisdom of God.

This particular criticism of ID might feel as if it comes out of left field, because it does. At the risk of sounding repetitive – ID does not concern itself with what we might call the imminence of God in the workings of nature. In addition, Barr stretches the category of “design argument” to imply that it doesn’t properly include an argument explaining the beginning of nature. And in addition to philosophical design arguments, there are plenty of explicit places in Christian Scripture that don’t imply, but state a doctrine of creation ex nihilo.

He goes on:

The emphasis in early Christian writings was not on complexity, irreducible or otherwise, but on the beauty, order, lawfulness, and harmony found in the world that God had made. As science advances, it brings this beautiful order ever more clearly into view.

Even if he is right, who cares? This argument, which is the bulk of his theological argument against ID, is neither here nor there. I wonder if I am going to sound repetitive if I point out ID isn’t concerned with New Testament theology as a foundation for their research on DNA or the statistical laws of information.

And that brings us back to the piece in the Huffington Post. The title is, “Intelligent Design: Losing the Catholics.” Neither Feser nor Barr were ever proponents of the ID position. You can’t lose what you never had.

I wonder if the editors at the Huffington Post have worked with a dictionary recently.

Saturday, December 04, 2010

Feeling Our Way Through Narnia

This headline caught my eye this morning. Like a lot of people I am looking forward to the latest Narnia movie and hoping it will be good. But leave it to an actor to be a fly in the soup. The headline reads:

Narnia fans' fury after Liam Neeson claims Aslan - the symbol of Christ - could also be Mohammed

The article is quite clear that Aslan is an obvious and deliberate symbol of Christ. But Neeson has different personal feelings about the matter.

Ahead of the release of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader next Thursday, Neeson said: ‘Aslan symbolises a Christ-like figure but he also symbolises for me Mohammed, Buddha and all the great spiritual leaders and prophets over the centuries.

‘That’s who Aslan stands for as well as a mentor figure for kids – that’s what he means for me.’

What fascinates me is how something so obviously Christian and Christological can be said by anyone familiar with the books to also symbolize Islam, Buddhism, and the catch-all goodness of modern secularism, child mentoring. Well, here’s how.

In a world rife with political correctness – the feeling that the worst moral offense possible is a judgment of anything – we now live according to our feelings. Notice how (and he is certainly not alone) Neeson has a personal feeling about the symbolism of Aslan. And his personal feeling trumps all facts and reality, well, because he exemplifies a moral world where facts and reality are secondary to personal feelings about things. We are becoming people with oatmeal for brains.

There are too many contradictions in Neeson’s feelings to spend time on. But again, that doesn’t bother the politically correct feeler. After all, things like contradictions in fact are of lesser importance than one’s personal take on a matter.

This is no simplistic or frustrated attack on “political correctness” or our vague postmodern world. This is serious stuff and Neeson’s feeling about Aslan is just a harmless example of a vicious cancer on the modern human mind and soul.

Why are people – more and more of them – run by their personal feelings on things in the light of direct contradiction of fact and reality? We have traded the exercise of thinking about truth for feeling about self.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Recapturing the Vocation of Pastor

M. Craig Barnes
The Pastor as Minor Poet: Texts and Subtexts in the Ministerial Life
Eerdmans, 2009.

In my perfect world the kinds of books ministry majors in Bible colleges and seminaries would read are exemplified by this offering by Barnes. Instead of the corporate style leadership models and the slick gimmicking of church growth seminars, future pastors would soak in views of pastoring that begin and end with biblical influences and remain solidly against the reigning cultural models. Barnes has written such a book.

The goal, it seems, is to clarify a confusion pastors live with right now – what it means to be a pastor. It seems to be a great problem if men and women are entering professions they can’t properly or deeply define, but I think he is right. We have simply let the role of pastor be defined for us in recent decades and we need to work to recover its true meaning.

The image Barnes uses to control the book is that of pastor as a “minor poet.” Major poets are the larger-than-life biblical and historical figures who change almost everything, but the vast majority of us fit into the “minor poet” role as we work on translating the truths of God into a fuzzy and broken world. All in all, I think the metaphor is a helpful one. From time to time it seems a bit stretched, but it really comes home in some of the final chapters as Barnes uses T.S. Elliot’s “The Three Voices of Poetry” to help define the pastoral vocation. I was surprised at how helpful that rubric was.

The book is short but important. If you are a pastor, I challenge you to pick up this book and others like it to re-ground your vocation and break away from the definitions placed on you from the outside. If you know someone wanting to be a pastor, give them this book and see how it strikes them. I found it encouraging, helpful and needful at the same time.

Who Is A Pastor, Anyway?

Craig Barnes has written a wonderful book on the vocation of pastoring in his The Pastor as Minor Poet. While I intend to write up a more formal review, I thought I would take a few excerpts to reflect upon first.

I am convinced we have a crisis of definition in the evangelical pastoral world. We don’t know – and I include pastors in this – what a pastor does or what his or her role is in a church or society. That might come off as a little over the top, but I grow more convinced of it all the time. Barnes notes:

The hardest thing about being a pastor today is not the long hours, the demanding congregations, the eclectic responsibilities, the fishbowl existence, or the relentless return of Sundays. Those who have taken the vows of ordination have long shouldered all of that as the yoke of Christ. But only within the last two generations have the clergy been forces to bear an additional burden that is far from light – confusion about what it means to be the pastor. (pg. 4)

And I think it only gets worse the more churches give into the pressures of becoming part of the entertainment culture our congregations live the rest of their lives in. This add the pressure of the unquenchable thirst for “more” and for amusement at every turn. The church is something different, and the pastor is someone different.

Most of the leadership models within the pastoral world are of no particular help at all. Barnes writes just a few paragraphs later:

Much of the current literature on leadership that is being taught in our seminaries has come from secular universities such as the Harvard Business School. It’s presented as if the principles of corporate management can easily be baptized for leaders o congregations. (pg. 5)

They can’t. Though churches balance budgets and pay bills they are primarily the work of Christ. And though pastors need to be comfortable reading and understanding balance sheets, they are not accountants or corporate leaders. They are primarily and always spiritual shepherds.

There is so much to say and to reflect upon.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Vomit and Spiritual Formation

Mark 7:14-15 MSG "Listen now, all of you— take this to heart. It's not what you swallow that pollutes your life; it's what you vomit—that's the real pollution"

It is frightening to learn sometimes that our external lives are a reflection of our internal health or dysfunction. What comes out of our mouth (our lives, emotions, hands, etc.) is an inevitable outcome of what we have going on inside of us. To be more specific, what comes out of us is what we put in. What else could it be?

To be as graphic as the Message paraphrase, we can only vomit what we eat.

This points us to a fundamental truth in spiritual formation: our souls hold onto everything we put in them, stores it all, our minds and characters get formed, and our lives inevitably follow. The good news is that now we know how (at least one crucial step) to change what we vomit. Change what you eat.

What does your soul take in on a regular basis? You may say you are a follower of Christ, but who has most of your attention during most of your days?

My own hobby horse compels me to wonder about a lot of the “vomit” from pulpits on Sunday mornings. Are pastors filling their souls with the great things of Christ, good theologians, the fathers and mothers of the faith, or pro sports coaches and CEOs?

Monday, November 15, 2010

Can Be Summed Up In Two Words...

Craig Groeschel
The Christian Atheist: Believing in God but Living as if He Doesn’t Exist

My thoughts on this book can be summed up in two words: Sigh and Yawn. First, the sigh.

I have been intrigued by this book for a while and finally picked it up at the local store looking forward to hearing a pastor talk about believing in Christ while living as if we don’t. The phrase, “Christian atheist” is a provocative one and it presents interesting inroads into some pastoral work.

Instead of thought-provoking work, the book is a string of stories supported by a few verses here and there and punch-lines. Every chapter goes like this: catchy title, story of the down-and-outer, verse, repeat story and verse four or five more times, a little bit of surface Scriptural work, punch-line. I don’t know exactly what I expected when I picked up the book, but I was fairly underwhelmed with the product.

The Yawn is pretty self explanatory. Every chapter was essentially the same with variations on the stories and themes. All the actual biblical and spiritual work was simple bordering on simplistic. The illustrations – not unlike many sermons preached each week – overwhelmed the biblical insights and the vision of Christ this topic could have developed.

If you are looking for a simple and easy to read pick-me-up with lots of stories, this book really might be a help to you. If, however, you want to really dig into the very real problem of “Christian atheists,” this book might come up a little short for you.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Thinking in Bumper Stickers

I like the bumper stickers people put on their cars. I would never do it, but I enjoy the fact that others do. I also enjoy attributing to the owner of the car the (often simplistic) mindset portrayed by the bumper sticker. But seriously, folks, bumper stickers convey some of the deepest thoughts our culture is capable of right now. In the grocery store parking lot this afternoon, there was this sticker on a Wiccan’s VW Van:

Harm None, Do What You Will

My first thought was something along the lines: like harming my sense of reason and moral order by inflicting this bumper sticker on me?

Why do we begin with the premise, “harm none”? Is that really a universal, unassailable moral principle? Clearly it is not. The creators of the Teletubies and the Wiggles are case in point. The moral assertion to “harm none” is debatable at best and simplistic naiveté at worst.

If we do pass the “harm none” reflection test, we have to assume that there are activities we engage in that don’t do any harm to anyone. While we might be able to scrounge up a few trivial examples, the vast majority of our lives’ decisions cascade into the lives of others. As has been said by people smarter and deader than me – we do not live or act unto ourselves.

In the end, the Wiccan VW Van bumper sticker wanted to read, “Stop telling me what to do, and don’t complain if it bothers you!” Much less pithy; much more true.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

The Letters Are Far From Losers

Mary Eberstadt
The Loser Letters

This book is a catch. The device Eberstadt uses is similar to the Screwtape Letters in that she uses a string of letters from one point of view to argue for the opposing point of view. The speaker in the book is a young atheist convert writing to the big New Atheists (always in a capitalized “You”) about where they have gone wrong. The tone is that of a smart but young adult who is serious about her desire for the atheists to be right about their ethics and naturalism. The point is an apologetic for where they go wrong in their arguments over and over.

One of the things I found surprising about the book is the storyline that unfolds through the letters. Who is this young lady known as A. F. Christian (A Former Christian)? How did her conversion from Christianity to atheism happen? What kinds of insights might she have for the New Atheists? And most importantly, what is happening to her now?

This is a popular-level book, so don’t expect any footnotes or jargon. But that does not keep Eberstadt from making some serious arguments and accusations and doing it well. I think this is a great way into the world of the current apologetic resulting from the New Atheists, and might even be a good breather from the more technical works.

Separation of Church and State?

The role of the state vs. the role of religion and spirituality in public life is at once one of the most hotly contested issues in our culture and one that suffers from the largest set of misguided assumptions. The phrase, “separation of church and state,” is a bumper-sticker polemic whipped out at the first sign of religion and moral thinking intended to put a stop to all meaningful interaction – what a professor of mine used to call a “thought stopper.”

But this stunted shape of the public discourse has left us in a position where we are overly sensitive to and under-prepared to think about the role of religion (and, gasp, organized religion) in the public square.

A wonderfully clear thinker, Thomas Sowell, deals with a handful of the political misgivings of the “separation of church and state” in this article, but it is left to us to continue to deal with the very real and necessary role of religion in our culture.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Desiring (and Knowing?) The Kingdom

James K.A. Smith
Desiring the Kingdom
Grand Rapids, MI. Baker Academic 2009.

It is a ubiquitous question for thinking and engaged Christians everywhere in every age: How do we understand the tension between the influence of the culture upon the church and the influence of the church upon the culture? In much of the recent evangelical literature on this subject, the focus has been on worldview. The big ideas have been ideas, beliefs, and doctrines and how Christians ought to transform theirs or recapture a distinctly Christian set. Smith sees the project in a different light. In fact, he sees the matter of influence to be upon our ideas and not necessarily through our ideas.

In many ways, Smith reaches back through modern and enlightenment-influenced theology and philosophy to Augustine and his belief that we are primarily affective creatures before we are rational creatures: we love before we think. And if the central questions about our character and formation are about our loves, we ought to get to what forms and shapes our loves. Smith’s fundamental claim and the one that drives the book is that “liturgies” form our loves, and thus, form us. Early on he notes, “The core claim of this book is that liturgies – whether ‘sacred’ or ‘secular’ – shape and constitute our identities by forming our most fundamental desires and our most basic attunement to the world. In short, liturgies make us certain kinds of people and what defines us in what we love.” (pg. 25)

Though the primary audience of the book is Christian education, Smith is aware, and I wholeheartedly agree, that his work has far-reaching application outside of the academy. If his premise is true, then this work has implications for the form and shape of the church as much as the university. I will briefly summarize the two sections of the book with some of his major points, and then offer some questions and analysis.

The first of two sections is devoted to an expression of anthropology, focusing on humans as loving/affective creatures and how those loves are formed. Cultural liturgies are examined and exposited as Smith makes the case for loving as the fundamental act of the human being in place of reasoning. Most worldview thinking, he argues, has the human creature exactly upside down as it emphasizes rationalistic behavior over affective influences.

For someone familiar with some of the basics of virtue theory, it will not come as a surprise that Smith argues that habits and practices play a large, if not primary, role in the forming of loves and the human character. He also employs the structure of “social imaginary” to describe how the practices of our lives and our worship form us as “noncognitive” directors of our actions and dispositions toward the world.

In the second section, Smith moves from anthropology to the more constructive task of dealing with the actual ins and outs of Christian worship. In the first section he argues that we need to form a new way of imagining and seeing the Kingdom of God, and in the second part he goes about dealing with how that happens. He asks, “In other words, what does worship say about Christian faith?” (pg. 134) It is a good question, and it deserves to be dealt with. What do our actual practices as Christians tell us about the shape of our faith in Christ? The term “practical atheist” may be overused in some contexts, but its point fits just fine with Smith’s larger idea. Are we as Christ followers worshiping (acting) in such a way as to make good sense of our faith?

While some reviewers have noted that the first part of the book may be stronger than the second, I think a degree of charity needs to be applied to this second part. I must admit that I lost some steam reading through to the end as Smith listed the various “practical” applications of his theory, but I still found them instructive and at times provocative.

I found a lot of Smith’s argument to be the kind of thing we ought to be talking about in our churches and universities. Are we guilty of a kind of Gnosticism in which we have disconnected what we believe from how we behave and what we do when we gather together? Have we lost a sense of being deeply affective creatures who are often moved by our experiences more than the latest lecture we heard? We need to wrestle with the implications of these issues. Given that, there are some assertions and arguments in the book to push against.

I’ll get a rather small thing out of the way first. From time to time Smith seems to erect scarecrows to knock down. One particular instance happens in his sidebar on The Moulin Rouge. His argument is that there is something valuable in the way love is portrayed (at least in its force upon the human being) there, and he notes, “And so one could suggest that the kingdom looks more like Montmarte than Colorado Springs!” (pg. 79) The play, of course, is on a stereotype of Colorado Springs as a kind of evangelical Mecca where nearly everyone is blindly evangelical and in lock-step with the Republican party. I was disappointed in that kind of broad-stroke ad hominem, but it isn’t the only place where part of his argument relies on pigeon-holing a set of evangelicals in a cubicle and knocking the whole thing down.

Then there are times where it seems Smith is too heavy-handed with other points of view in order to make his argument. The result of this tact is that he portrays an apparent disregard for and a simple denial of different points of view. Smith clearly argues that we are primarily affective/loving beings, but at times he appears to say we are exclusively affective/loving beings, showing a disregard for what seems to me to be the truth of the influence of ideas and reason. Instead of a both/and or primary/secondary approach Smith seems to want to have an either/or approach, which doesn’t help his overall case.

Early on Smith characterizes his foil as “rationalistic,” “a talking-head version of Christianity,” and provocatively enough a “’bobble head’ Christianity” where what goes on in the head far outweighs what goes on in the body (pg. 42). While this can be true of some forms of Christian theology heavily influenced by the enlightenment, is it true of all forms of theology concerned with true doctrine and the content of the propositional messages we proclaim? As seems to be the case with theologians and Christians influenced by a postmodern philosophy, there might be a temptation to make a category mistake here: all who disagree with us are disjointed enlightenment thinkers.

Another example of this kind of reasoning appears in the second half of the book on page 163, “The ‘image of God’ (imago Dei) is not some de facto property of Homo sapiens (whether will or reason or language or what have you); rather, the image of God is a task, a mission” (emphasis his). This is the kind of thing that shoots the argument he wants to make in the foot. We are put off by the unnecessary bifurcation of the two – property vs. mission – and we are on guard from then on. I find it obvious in both the Scripture and in the theology on the subject that the image of God is at least a set of properties endowed to us by God that make us, not worms, uniquely human. It is then be constructive to note that the image of God is a “task, a mission” that we have as creatures living under God.

I simply do not see a logical contradiction in his argument if he took love to be primary to reason, and then argued for the proper places of each in the liturgies of the believer.

There is a lot to be gained through Smith’s book, and he raises arguments we need to wrestle with that we don’t often think through. And for that, I think this book is very useful for Christian educators and pastors. But I hope that as he fills out this project he will avoid some of the unnecessary rhetorical and argumentative devices that hurt the overall argument.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Christians and Politics

This piece in USA Today addresses one of the pressing issues for Christians in our current cultural climate – the relationship between the faith and the cut-and-thrust of politics. The author is concerned with how it seems that the involvement of religion in politics hasn’t lifted political life, but seems to have soiled religion. In a lot of ways, I think he is right. We have probably tied ourselves too much to political figures and victories (to the left and the right) instead of speaking and living the truths of the Christian faith in our world.

Politics are important and have serious real-world consequences, but Christians need to remember their first and deepest allegiance to Christ.

The article is hit and miss. He is concerned with the loss of civility in our public discourse, and I think we can agree on that. He, however, cites Jim Wallis of Sojourners as a seriously civil voice. That’s a joke. As long as you are willing to avoid any principled or absolute stands on faith or morals, Wallis is civil. Wallis is a cut-and-paste religious relativist and if you are to the right of him, politically and theologically speaking, you are a target for ad hominem attacks. Just ask Olansky of World Magazine.

Even in his conclusion, Krattenmaker gets some things right, and others wrong:

The wise course is not withdrawal from public life. The task is to find and hold an appropriate distance, a place from which faith can exert principled influence and inspire the body politic's best instincts and intentions.

Especially these days, politics as usual seems to drag all who play right into the gutter. That's no place for religion.

The Christian needs to recognize that faith should inform and influence politics, not the other way around – we should not withdraw from public life. But the Christian should never accept the position that faith belongs as an “appropriate distance” from public life. Our public life needs a core that only the Christian faith can provide.

Christians are called to do something that I’m not sure anyone else is doing: contend for the truths handed down to us while leading the way in civility and reasoned discourse. Do that now, and you will stick out like a sore thumb – in a good way.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

"I would want to be the first to put a pillow over its head"

Virginia Ironside is a British columnist of apparently some note who has hit the international scene recently by asserting on BBC that she would rather suffocate a suffering child than allow it to live. In the context of a conversation about whether abortion can be a kindness, she likened an embryo to “a couple of cells” and valued them as nothing compared to long-term suffering.

A handful of things strike me as a result of this video. Is it really out of the realm of reason to argue against current forms of abortion and euthanasia using the slippery slope argument? The destruction of a child in the womb is one form of murder, and we may feel a step disconnected from the morality of it because the child is still in the womb, but infanticide is another. And while the public debate up until recently has typically been in terms of “health of the mother” or “back-alley” abortions, the public debate is now creeping into the territory of simple infanticide for the sake of convenience. The slope seems to have been slippery, indeed.

To my knowledge only two types of cultures consider infanticide not murder: the utterly barbaric and backward and the overly cushy. We are the second: a culture inextricably linked to our creature comforts and convenience and thus we seem to be developing a particular distaste for an undefined (but clearly abhorred!) sense of “suffering.” The ubiquitous question asks itself, “Who gets to define ‘suffering’?” What kinds of people are so selfish as to impose their sense of “suffering” on another and chose life or death for them?

According to studies done in the last decade, about 90% of children diagnosed with Down syndrome are aborted. I guarantee you that if you talk with a family who has a Down syndrome child, they will be appalled. Down syndrome can be a relatively minor handicap. So what about other “minor” forms of handicaps? Where do we draw the lines and who gets to draw them?

The more I work this issue through, the more it seems to me that the only reasonable and solid ground for personhood is at conception. Anyplace else is fairly if not utterly arbitrary, and opens the door to having conversations about how old a child can be for us to legally kill it. The personhood of anyone is not correlative to the value we place upon it, or the potential suffering we expect for it. Your personhood is not a sliding scale with another’s hand on the dial.

The Christian knows that suffering, in all its forms, is not the gauge for the value of any human life. There is no denying suffering, and no Christian should downplay real pains and consequences, but no Christian should measure the value of any life based on “suffering.”

Friday, October 01, 2010

Looking for the Right Kinds of Leaders

Mike Adams is a bit of an iconoclast - a radical atheist turned Christian while an academic. He now authors columns that deal with the academic world, and from time to time touch on the state of American Christianity. This article, "Searching for Bonhoeffer" is a short and to-the-point criticism of the loss of doctrinal bravery in many of our churches. Though his particular whipping-boy is the mega-church, I am confident that his assessment applies to more places than we might at first imagine.

Though he does not mention Bonhoeffer in the article, he refers to a pastoral character that is not swayed by the spirit of the age, finds depth of meaning and lifestyle in Christ, and leads others through a world that mocks evangelical commitment. Adam's last two paragraphs are challenging:

Our culture is in rapid decline as we enter the Obama/post-Christian phase of American history. People are in search of bold and fearless pastors who will take a stand against evil in blunt and uncompromising - not coded and esoteric - language. In the end, pastors who refuse to mold the Gospel to accommodate the spiritual needs of the seeker or the financial needs of the church will be the last ones standing.

I predict that many of the mega-churches of today will be the shopping malls of tomorrow. When it is time to foreclose and go packing someone is going to have some heavy equipment to move. At least no one will have to pick up their cross.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Moral Courage

Moral courage requires reform and needs a reformer. Moral complicity - anyone can do that.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

The Suicide of Thought

I was listening to a recording of Chesterton's Orthodoxy today, and ran across this prescient and insightful passage:

I have known people who protested against religious education with arguments against any education, saying that the child’s mind must grow freely or that the old must not teach the young. I have known people who showed that there could be no divine judgment by showing that there can be no human judgment, even for practical purposes. They burned their own corn to set fire to the church; they smashed their own tools to smash it; any stick was good enough to beat it with, though it were the last stick of their own dismembered furniture. We do not admire, we hardly excuse, the fanatic who wrecks this world for love of the other. But what are we to say of the fanatic who wrecks this world out of hatred of the other? He sacrifices the very existence of humanity to the non-existence of God. He offers his victims not to the altar, but merely to assert the idleness of the altar and the emptiness of the throne. He is ready to ruin even that primary ethic by which all things live, for his strange and eternal vengeance upon some one who never lived at all. (ch 8, The Romance of Orthodoxy)

This a great insight into the lengths taken by a secularist worldview when their philosphy's rubber meets the roads of education and ethics. Better to have no reason than the reason of God.

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Embryo Destructive vs. Actually Creative Research

Recently, a court ruling put a stop to the Obama administration’s work to pour tax dollars into embryo-destructive stem cell research. It was the right ruling for all kinds of reasons, not the least of which is that it is actually illegal to do what the Obama team tried to do.

But the best reasons are highlighted in Matt Bowman’s opinion in USA Today, “Pointless Research.” He notes that since to congressional ruling in 1995,

science itself has ended the debate. Adult stem cells actually help people, and a new technique creating "induced pluripotent stem cells" (IPSCs) gives every benefit of embryonic cells and more, without destroying embryos. Stem cell pioneer James Thomson told The New York Times that IPSCs spell the "end" of the embryonic stem cell field. Meanwhile, embryonic-destructive research has yielded little beyond tumors, wild promises and the demand for more taxpayer dollars.

So why are certain parts of the scientific and political world still pushing for hundreds of millions to fund research that has been a dead end and promises to be that way for a while (especially when there is useful research being done without the embryos)?

That’s a good question, and I’m not sure I have a satisfactory answer. And I am honestly looking for one. It is outright intellectual dishonesty? Group-think? Political power-plays in the halls of hallowed science?

Thursday, August 26, 2010


In order to be relevant, churches have laid down the scalpel and sutures of theology and picked up the water weenies and squirt guns of practicality.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Mental Character

I must admit I am not David Brooks’ biggest fan, but a friend sent me a link to this op-ed piece of his, “A Case of Mental Courage.” I had commented on facebook that when a culture is no longer able to think clearly, it becomes a slave to the tyranny of inanity. In response, he mentioned Brooks’ article.

I really do think Brooks is right when comparing the culture 200 years ago with ours:

In the mental sphere, this meant conquering mental laziness with arduous and sometimes numbingly boring lessons. It meant conquering frivolity by sitting through earnest sermons and speeches. It meant conquering self- approval by staring straight at what was painful.

This emphasis on mental character lasted for a time, but it has abated. There’s less talk of sin and frailty these days.

In this atmosphere, we’re all less conscious of our severe mental shortcomings and less inclined to be skeptical of our own opinions.

He goes on to make a few allusions to how this works out in the political sphere. And may I add that the vast majority of political speech is riddled with horrific thinking: it may be persuasive or expedient or pragmatic or emotive, but it is by-in-large not thoughtful.

Mental character, as Brooks puts it, is a virtue we sorely miss and one we will pay the price for losing over time. Without it, we are left to the whims of the best admen or the most attractive public face or the loudest megaphone. With it, no amount of grandstanding will unduly move us and no amount of pressure and persecution will take our lives off the truth.

Monday, August 09, 2010

The Smiting Scripture Gaffe

Each week in service we read a passage of Scripture together as a congregation during our worship. It is often a wonderful moment, reminding us of some goodness of God or of living as his people. This week was especially exciting, so I thought I would share.

As one of our songs ended, we had prepared a space for the reading and the first slide came up:

Hide me from the conspiracy of the wicked,
from that noisy crowd of evildoers.

They sharpen their tongues like swords
and aim their words like deadly arrows.

They shoot from ambush at the innocent man;
they shoot at him suddenly, without fear.

The Scripture reference read, “Psalm 63:2-4.” The text, however, came from Psalm 64.

I had two thoughts simultaneously: This has to be the wrong passage, and, I hope there isn’t any more to this. By then the slide changed to reveal the rest of the passage.

They encourage each other in evil plans,
they talk about hiding their snares;
they say, "Who will see them?"

They plot injustice and say,
"We have devised a perfect plan!"
Surely the mind and heart of man are cunning.

But God will shoot them with arrows;
suddenly they will be struck down.

He will turn their own tongues against them
and bring them to ruin;
all who see them will shake their heads in scorn.

Long one, isn't it? Try reading it outloud...in front of the congregation...slowly.

One of our worship leaders dutifully read through the end of the passage. The others stopped talking to keep themselves from laughing openly. The next song was a slower, thoughtful song, and it was at least a verse before one of the singers was able to join in.

And who, might you wonder, was at the root of our “Smiting Scripture Gaffe”? The youth pastor. Surprised?

Saturday, August 07, 2010

We Make The Idols, The Idols Make Us

In her provocatively titled article, “What is Reality TV Doing To Us?” the prolific and thoughtful Christine Rosen thinks a little bit about the degradation of human relationships as evidenced in the popularity of reality TV shows – the flotsam and jetsam of the TV world (which isn’t saying much to begin with!). She notes:

If a culture gets the celebrities it deserves, what does it say about ours that we are so embedded in the ersatz lives of housewives, wife-swappers, and the prodigiously fertile?

While her reflections are primarily sociological, my concerns are primarily moral. These TV shows are the kinds of cultural artifacts that are both a reflection of and partial cause of our morally illiterate culture. According to cultural theories that begin with the need for individual and social virtues, it is important to have moral exemplars among us – moral heroes if you will. So while there will be plenty of human refuse around us, that may not make up the majority of our social influence. There will people among us who exemplify moral courage, integrity and honesty, wisdom and moderation.

Few to none of the “stars” (either reality or otherwise) are what we would call moral heroes. Can we even describe moral heroes any more, much less recognize them in our public lives? Instead, they cater to the lowest common denominators among us encouraging the basest forms of self-indulgence, hedonism, and arrogance. We begin to learn that self-indulgence is a kind of personal good while we watch people who are either already unusually wealthy or who are on TV becoming wealthy receive the attention and adoration of the media culture. The hedonism in these shows is so transparent and unquestioned that we are becoming inured to its presence. Where we might have blinked at simply PDA a while ago, it now takes the growing commonality of homosexual PDA to grab our attention. And then we learn to be arrogant when we have nothing to boast about. Nothing but our self-absorbed individuality is needed to be proud of ourselves. The more pathetic we become, the prouder we become of it.

And because the media culture saturates our lives, they form our only really influential idols. For those who are saturated with TV and entertainment news, they may have no other significant sources of lifestyle-modeling. How is it a relatively healthy family can raise kids that look and sound like the trash on TV? Because the influence of the one doesn’t hold a candle to the influence of the other.

And as Christians we can note that the influence of the weekly service and “daily devotional” lifestyle will not even come close to breaking the lifestyle influences of reality TV. More and more Christians are better qualified to answer the question, “What would Simon Cowell say?” than “What would Jesus do?” And if that is true, then what are we as the Body of Christ becoming to this world?

Friday, August 06, 2010

Christian Belief and the Simple Skeptic

This blog post at STR on Christianity and skepticism resonates well with a lot of the back-and-forth I have seen over the evidence for Christianity. Often the skeptic is adept at a handful of specialized arguments that cast doubt on belief, but then may struggle to provide positive evidence for a belief they want to espouse.

The excerpts below apply to the “simply doubting skeptic” and not to a more robust project of positive evidence for a non-theistic position, but they are provocative nonetheless. The simple skeptic shakes Christians far more than he or she ought.

Critics of Christianity - or any other number of issues - sometimes think that skepticism is the default position toward our claims. Always posing questions and doubt, but never offering support for these. They think skepticism is a safe default position despite an argument offered them.

Many critics of Christianity pose counterarguments and rebuttals of our claims. But some merely pose questions to sow seeds of doubt and think they've done enough to dismiss Christianity. Doubts and questions do not constitute counter-evidence.

And again…

This is a simple matter of epistemology and reason, not unique to Christianity. Any position supported by evidence and arguments should be met by critics with reasons and arguments of their own. If they only respond with skepticism, they've done nothing at all to to negate any of the justification for the other view. At this point, one view has evidence to support it, and the other - and skepticism is a position about a view - has none. The position that has been justified has the rational advantage. The one that hasn't, doesn't.

Monday, August 02, 2010

Another Outbreak of Adult Stem Cells

I have argued in this blog for a while now that when it comes to the debate surrounding embryonic stem cell research and adult stem cell research, the adult cells have the embryonic cells beat on every count. Then comes this headline published several places, but here in the LA Times, “Adult Stem Cell Studies Ahead of Embryonic Research.” The article goes on to mention (and link to) a few of the many clinical successes already known as a result of ASC treatments. As for ESC research it continues to show “promise” and is being worked on in certain spinal cord applications. The long and the short of it (for now), is that ASC research is a success and ESC research is still a promise.

The next consideration is that ESC research destroys embryos – they cannot survive the process of having the stem cells removed. So, depending on your view of the personhood of the embryo, ESC research is tantamount to a form of abortion. Hence, it seems that ASC research has both the scientific and ethical edge.

Another consideration is that ESCs have a potentially wider range of application than ASCs. They might be able to do more for more people, so the research (necessarily including the creation and destruction of embryos) is justified based on the potential good it can do. If we find a way for one embryo to be used in the treatment of, say, 100 patients with 100 different conditions, is it worth the destruction of possibly tens of thousands of embryos in the process?

I don’t agree with that kind of fairly crass utilitarian thinking, and am inclined to be on the side of ASC research that harms none, actually accomplishes real-world treatments, and continues to develop as a multipotent form of medical treatment.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Pastors Preaching

For our denomination’s area meeting this Spring (what we call District Council), I was asked to give a workshop session on combining an expositional preaching style with what you might call week-to-week applicability/relevance/practicality, etc. The basic issue I was asked to address is the reason why so many evangelical churches have moved away from sermons that begin and end with a biblical text – the fear of irrelevance. The talk I gave, The Dogma is the Drama, emphasized the need to begin with a commitment to Scripture and keep in mind what you might call the prophetic element; the present-day realities and needs of the congregation.

I was asked a question at the end about how a pastor can go about building this kind of point of view and effectiveness from week to week. I gave an off-the-cuff answer that was pretty thin (sorry, Bob!). But after a little more reflection, I might have a better answer. So how does a pastor go about getting to know both Scripture and the culture well enough to build a pulpit ministry that is faithful to Scripture first and foremost, and yet speaks wisely into current issues and cultural settings?

First of all, there is no substitute for biblical literacy, and because it should go without saying, I won’t spend any more time on it. But what does need to be said is that pastors need to deepen what else they read. We are in the business of handling the mystery of the gospel of Christ, and thus we should be in the regular habit of reading thoughtful and intelligent books. We ought to put down Olsteen and pick up the Stotts. We should read a little less off the “Christian Inspiration” shelf and a little more off the “Theology” shelf. Most of what passes for Christian best-sellers are pretty thin on substance, and if that becomes our primary mental diet, we ought not be surprised if our sermons follow form.

I have another pastor friend who always has at least four books going in four areas: theology, philosophy, science, and Bible. While that might be a heavy load for some, it is an example of where we ought to be headed. What was the last good book on theology you read that stretched you? Have you ever read anything by a Christian philosopher?

I would like to add to the list of potential books works by dead people. There is a perspective that comes from faithful Christians in different contexts that becomes invaluable to us over time. A thoughtful pastor ought to read Baxter’s Reformed Pastor – it is worth 100 current books on pastoral leadership. The journey of discovery, confession and conversion in Augustine’s Confessions is priceless.

Cultural Literacy
My original answer in the workshop was along these lines: I read a lot of things that frustrate me. Reading up on what the secular culture thinks about spiritual things can be very enlightening. At the very least, it helps to get us out of our comfort zones and puts us in contact with people who think and believe very differently than we do.

Francis Schaeffer is probably our modern North-star when it comes to this. He read, understood and could communicate with the disciples of Nietzsche. Can I read, understand and communicate with the modern disciples of Hitchens, Singer, and the like? If not, I might be unnecessarily limiting my spheres of influence.

The Weekly Conviction that Scripture Speaks
All this folds into how we approach Scripture. Do I need to “make” it relevant? Do I have to pull in some outside source to help the dry text communicate well? Do I need to buy illustrations off the internet about perseverance?

The Scriptural text is like the oven that bakes all the influences together into a tasty treat. All the flotsam and jetsam is consumed in the heat, and the various ingredients are subsumed by the larger purpose of the text itself.

Friday, July 09, 2010

Chickens are like Peanuts...

This story is absolutely brilliant. From the online version of the Wall Street Journal, the first couple of paragraphs speak for themselves:

Hobbies often hatch small-business ideas. Chickens are no exception.

Ruth Haldeman began adopting pet chickens in 2002. "I wanted fresh eggs, but I found that chickens are like peanuts, you can't have just one," she says. Before long, Ms. Haldeman had founded
ChickenDiapers.com in Hot Springs, Ark.

"Everyone was talking about how there was a need for diapers," she says, given that chickens typically can't be potty trained. "Oh, lord, what a mess they make."

I think this is brilliant, well, because it is about diapers you put on chickens. Secondly it is a great example of what individual entrepreneurs can do if they see a need (or a messy niche) and have the economic freedom to take the initiave and fill it. You may not need very many chicken diapers, and I find them hilarious, but you have to admit a command and control economy would never have room for un-housetrained chicken potty accessories.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

The Vocation of Pastor

Eugene Peterson is a deeply important theologian for the evangelical world today primarily because he has wrestled against cultural stereotypes of ministry and pastoral work for decades. This makes some of what he writes esoteric, but more often than not it is simply prophetic. My calling to be a pastor was saved by one of his less known books, Under the Unpredictable Plant. In this Out of Ur post, Brandon O’Brien uses one of his more recent works to discuss the difference between jobs and callings, careers and vocations.

Definitions are in order. According to Peterson, a job is “an assignment to do work that can be quantified and evaluated.” Most jobs come with job descriptions, so it “is pretty easy to decide whether a job has been completed or not…whether a job is done well or badly.” This, Peterson argues, is the primary way Americans think of the pastor (and, presumably, that pastors think of themselves). Ministry is “a job that I get paid for, a job that is assigned to me by a denomination, a job that I am expected to do to the satisfaction of my congregation.”

Jobs are quantifiable. We may be better or worse at them qualitatively, but they are primarily about quantifying the outcomes of job descriptions. Vocations are entirely different. They are what we are called to do, and they are rarely quantifiable in neat and tidy ways. The calling of the pastor is very much this way. Is a pastor’s vocation about numbers on Sunday mornings? If so, I can tell of the personal anxiety and havoc they inflict. Is a pastor’s vocation measurable by budgets? If so, what makes him any different from a corporate middle manager?

Instead, the pastor’s calling is about things like souls, spiritual formation, Gospel communication, reconciliation, truth, and so forth. Try keeping track of that in Excel. The result is a conflict of pressures: the standard cultural model wants to put quantifiable categories on “pastor,” but the call and the actual week-to-week work resist at every turn. So, to which do we acquiesce?

According to O’Brien, Peterson notes:

And the struggle for pastors today, he continues, is to “keep the immediacy and authority of God’s call in my ears when an entire culture, both secular and ecclesial, is giving me a job description.”

What do we expect of our pastors from week to week?

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Peter Singer and the Cleanest Apocalypse

Peter Singer is a rather infamous ethicist at Princeton and a public thinker who is often published in the pages of influential papers and popular journals. This gives Singer’s ideas a relatively powerful public platform, which is a little unfortunate. Most of what he argues for ends up being quite extreme in its dislike of the human species, and certainly at odds with a Christian worldview. Recently, he wrote a short opinion piece for the New York Times titled, “Should This Be The Last Generation?”

His basic question is this:

How good does life have to be, to make it reasonable to bring a child into the world? Is the standard of life experienced by most people in developed nations today good enough to make this decision unproblematic, in the absence of specific knowledge that the child will have a severe genetic disease or other problem?

Singer argues that it is certainly true that the birth of each child brings more suffering into the world, and that the birth of any child is neutral in its benefits/drawbacks at best. In other words, it is arguable that the birth of every child is a detriment to both the future of the human species and the planet. The reader should be aware that Singer is the current flag-bearer for utilitarianism, the ethical view that all meaningful notions of good and bad are wrapped up in the consequences of a thing or action. So, given this, it might be reasonable to argue that the totality of the goodness of the birth of a child may be measured by their carbon footprints. And, since they will inevitably add to the overall pollution of the planet, bringing them into existence is an overall moral negative. Hence, “If we would all agree to have ourselves sterilized then no sacrifices would be required — we could party our way into extinction!

To return to the original question of the piece, whether the expected quality of life is good enough to bring a child into existence, it strikes me as deeply ironic that the answer for most potential children in all the developing world is likely, “no.” If we were to implement Singer’s argument, it would result in eugenics on a scale the world has never seen against the poorest of the poor, the darkest skinned among us, and every economic and ethnic minority you can think of. Surely Singer (and others) doesn’t really want to argue for that. Singer cites another philosopher who has written in depth about this.

...South African philosopher David Benatar, author of a fine book with an arresting title: “Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence.” One of Benatar’s arguments trades on something like the asymmetry noted earlier. To bring into existence someone who will suffer is, Benatar argues, to harm that person, but to bring into existence someone who will have a good life is not to benefit him or her. Few of us would think it right to inflict severe suffering on an innocent child, even if that were the only way in which we could bring many other children into the world. Yet everyone will suffer to some extent, and if our species continues to reproduce, we can be sure that some future children will suffer severely. Hence continued reproduction will harm some children severely, and benefit none.

The argument is simple; the assumptions are convoluted and debatable at best. Is the environment more important than having children? That might be a false dichotomy, but Benatar assumes yes. Is the human species the most significant (possibly negative) factor on the environment? With apologies to Al Gore and the NY cocktail circuit, anthropogenic global warming is far from a settled science. Is the value of a potential child captured by either their assumed “quality of life” or impact on the environment? Absolutely not.

And finally, with a kind of “wave of the hand” and after providing some tentative arguments for stopping childbearing altogether, Singer says that’s not really what he thinks. “I do think it would be wrong to choose the non-sentient universe. In my judgment, for most people, life is worth living.”

I know it is a short article intended to provoke, but I am not sure Singer’s form of utilitarianism or general worldview can supply as robust an argument for continuing the species as it can for ending it.

Friday, June 25, 2010

The Christian, The Church, The Culture

Part 1

Some further thoughts on how the combination of cultural and spiritual influences work inside the Christian's heart.

There are no cultural institutions or rhythms in our world that encourage church attendance.

It used to be that weekends were different. Businesses closed. People didn’t travel as easily. More families were raised with a sense of Sabbath. Kid’s extra-curricular activities were not scheduled on the weekends. And so forth. Instead of a weekly rhythm that at the least encouraged rest on the weekend and at most made space for church attendance, we are now immersed in a hurried 24-7 whirlwind of activity. Nothing closes…ever. And if we find a store closed in the evenings and on weekends, we are shocked and dismayed. Nothing can be scheduled in the middle of the week anymore, so more and more of our activities happen on the weekend. Making it worse, because we are so booked throughout the week and most weekends, we are tempted to take as many Sundays off as possible. For people living in the beautiful state of Colorado, that means – get outdoors and stay there!

As a result, the normal rhythms of our lives make it hard to stop and do something a little out of the ordinary – sit in one room and engage in worship for a couple of hours. (Forget attending 3 times a week.) As a result, the decision to attend a church service is exactly that – a decision. It doesn’t just “fit” into our normal schedules. And it isn’t something that “just happens.” If church life is to become a regular and healthy part of our lives, it has to become a scheduling priority.

Do you put church in our smart phone calendar like you do your lunch appointments? It may sound crass to do that, but when was the last time you missed a lunch appointment? Because the patterns of the weekly lives we lead don’t make church a priority, we need to do that. We need to put it into our rhythms and activities. And without paying attention to a detail like what we do with ourselves and church once a week (more than that?), we will succumb to the secularized patters of life.

If the patterns of life we are subject to are radically secularized, we are responsible to put the sacred back in its rightful place.

That includes the daily spiritual disciplines, our spiritual friendships and deepening our moment-by-moment walk with God, and it certainly includes the family of God.

What Passes for Socratic and Philosophical

Christopher Phillips set out to do something really exciting. He wanted to host several Socrates Cafés across the world and in radically different cultures. The result is a fascinating insight into all kinds of cultural points of view I have never considered or been exposed to before. Phillips arranges open discussions among these various groups, gathers people of different ages and in different circumstances of life, and asks them some of the great Socratic questions. I really enjoyed listening in on the conversations including Navajo Indians, Koreans, second generation Muslims in America, and life-long prisoners. In almost every instance there was a variety of opinions among the people in the group, which of course added to the joy of the read.

One interesting exception to the variety of opinion was the Manhattan crowd – every one of them was a morally and intellectually confused relativist (in my opinion). Another exception to what was standard in the rest of the conversations was the group of Catholic Christians near the end of the book. Instead of an open dialogue where every opinion was accepted, the conversation was steered toward dislike for the established Catholic Church.

One other detail deserves mention. That these conversations pass for Socratic is telling. At almost no time (with the possible exception of the Catholic Christians) did Phillips push back on any answer anyone gave. The guiding principle of these dialogues seemed to be, “all views are equally acceptable,” which is to say these dialogues were not Socratic. Socrates did not ask questions because he was simply curious about what his fellow human being believed. He was after the truth, and Socrates was not above vivisecting an interlocutor to get to it. But, it seems we would rather sit, gab, and accept and call it philosophical.

More of the Same: Christian Leadership/Self-Help

Andy Stanley tells us at the very beginning of The Principle of the Path that he didn’t set out to write a self-help book, but a book about a principle. But in writing about what he calls the Principle of the Path, Stanley has succeeded in writing a self-help book. How does one avoid future personal problems? By following the principle. How does one make current decisions that may affect their futures? They follow the principle.

In its essence, I think Stanley’s principle is right. In fact, as Stanley admits, it is almost ridiculously obvious and it almost seems silly to write about it. But I can testify alongside him that too many people lack the present-day common sense it takes to get from where they are to where they want to (or ought to) be. So it has to be said, and as far as that goes, I think he has written a useful book.

My primary issue with it is the same issue I have with all Christian leadership/self-help books: they tend to treat Scripture as a grab-bag of tips and tricks. He uses plenty of Scripture throughout the book, but mostly to help identify the problems of the human heart, and when he uses it to help solve the problem, the solutions are a little simplistic. I am not sure how much good it does to suggest to someone who lacks the common sense to make good decisions now to “make better decisions!” Where is the much more needed work of how a person travels from a life of bad decisions and self-absorption to a life of godly wisdom? It is true we need to be told those things and have specific issues pointed out to us, but that can’t be the basis for real change in the human heart.

I think the core of Stanley’s book is right, but I think the solutions he offers are no different from the non-Christian self-help shelf just a few steps over in your local bookstore.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Politically Incorrect Cause and Effect

This truth is both obvious and morally uncomfortable: the primary causes of AIDS are certain sexual behaviors. Which of course makes it a politically incorrect untruth. The bioethicist Wesley J. Smith details some of the facts on his prolific blog, Secondhand Smoke.

The Christian, The Church, The Culture

I have been thinking lately about the combination of church and culture in the hearts of American Christians. Actually, as a pastor, you might say this issue is ingrained in what I do on a weekly basis, but nonetheless, it has been on the surface in recent days. Where does church fit into our priorities and schedules? How are we acculturated to view our spiritual selves? How much of that do we bring into our weekly church habits? Is church (as we know it) really all that important in the long run? So, as any decent blogger, I thought I would think out loud about a few things.

There are no major, publicly accepted institutions that enforce the importance of the spiritual.

The biblical view, which I believe is the accurate anthropological view, is that everything is spiritual (with apologies to Rob Bell). Though we are accustomed to a view in which our normal, day-to-day lives are lived in a non-spiritual and wholly “secular” world, it is more accurate to say that there is nothing that is not God-soaked.

Three of the primary influences in our culture create and reinforce the compartmentalization of our spiritual awareness: politics, journalism, and the university. In the world of politics, religion and spirituality play a unique, if not corrosive role. It is not uncommon, even among the least personally spiritual politicians, for candidates to invoke God or religion in some way. But even if they call it a “personal matter” or utter phrases like, “God bless America,” it is understood that their personal religious beliefs will remain private. They claim it in the public sphere, but they claim it to be only subjectively meaningful. And that is why I call it a corrosive role. We end up learning that the only right role for religion is subjective – religion does not belong in the public square. But because many of our public leaders claim some kind of religious conviction, we are lulled into the sense that a completely private spirituality is all we need. Our political sensibilities simply do not help us understand the proper role of Christian spirituality in our lives.

Journalism is even worse. An industry that is dedicated to up-to-the-second information with little to no context leaves us little to no room for rumination and reflection. If you wanted to, you could find a way to be inundated with “facts” and information 24/7. You would be, in one sense of the term, “informed” but you would have little to know actual understanding about anything you now have rolling around in your head. Headlines are poor substitutes for thought. Come to think of it, a lifestyle of headlines becomes a roadblock to sustained thought.

Add to that the growing reality that most of what passes for mainstream journalism is heavily influenced by a point of view, and you have a recipe for group-think.

For centuries Christians have been known as “people of the book,” meaning not only that they are guided by Scripture, but that they ought to be comfortable with the kind of intellectual and spiritual work that is done through the Book. We are not headline people who jump to quick and dirty conclusions. We are people who soak in the wisdom of the ages through each and every season of life. The wise Christian is a different creature than the well-informed news-junkie.

And then there is the ubiquitous influence of the western university. More and more these institutions have become degree factories in which students pursue a technical degree aiming at getting a high-paying job on the other end. Along the way, some of them are forced to take a required number of “humanities” credits, which in my experience, is not always a welcome experience for them. “Will this help me find a job?” seems to be the guiding principle for both the school and the student.

“Will this help me be a better human being?” is a question neither knows how to answer. But it is ultimately the question for all of us to answer. The Christian’s primary concern here is about the spiritual formation of the human person under God and not how much money they will make in their lives or how much technical skill they possess. If a person becomes wealthy is neither here nor there. Wealth is a tool that can be used virtuously by the well-formed soul, or viciously by the malformed soul. But this is not how we are trained in the world around us, and these concerns are left unanswered and un-addresses by our typical university system.

So then, who will teach us what the spiritual life under Christ looks like? And maybe it is more a matter of modeling/living out the importance of the spiritual than teaching it (in the sense of instructing it).

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Governments, Non-Profits, and the Homeless

Our humble town, Colorado Springs, has been through a recent debate over what to do with what has become a very visible homeless problem in the past few months. These issues are never quick or clean, and cities will always have its critics no matter what they do. But our homeless tent cities were becoming a public and health hazard, so something needed to be done. This article in our local paper summarizes what has been a tremendous series of events for the city and the homeless, beginning with our city and county making it hard to “camp.”

So here is what happened. First the city and county made it hard to stay homeless for a long time in the tent cities that were springing up through the center of town – they made it illegal to camp on city and county property. Second, a local, private foundation provided funds for the recently dispossessed homeless to have temporary housing. But, as one worker put it, there were conditions:

Homeward Pikes Peak executive director Bob Holmes makes it clear, however, that there were strings attached: Those who get a motel room are required to beat the streets to find a job.

Third, a few more local individuals attached to another local nonprofit stepped up to the plate and helped the homeless find jobs. The result?

Don’t tell Teresa McLaughlin it’s impossible to land a job in Colorado Springs. She knows 103 people who have found work in the past 100 days, beating enormous odds that had as much to do with their circumstances as the economy.

Looks like a win-win from here.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Funerals Are A Pain

Funerals are a pain. And I don’t mean that in the sense that they are an annoying inconvenience – they are pain. They mark the passing of family or friend, and they stand as that public moment when we all grieve, love on each other, and make steps toward a new normal without the one we loved. As a pastor I sometimes get to watch as families deal with their loss while the pain is very fresh and sometimes the members of families are all at very different places at the same time. One thing I have never appreciated about some is their immediate tendency to try and brush aside the grief with something like, “at least they are in a better place.” Though that is true for those who die with Christ, and though that truth is part of the healing process, we ought not to short-circuit the process of death and grief so quickly.

A recent article in CT deals with the new book, The Art of Dying: Living Fully into the Life to Come, by Rob Moll. In the article we are encouraged to think more about funerals as an act of spiritual formation and even community formation under Christ. We are, after all, people of a crucified and risen savior living in inevitable physical decay. We ought to therefore embody a community of resurrection – and remember that resurrection implies death. Rob Moll notes:

We live in a culture that has forgotten how to help people measure their days. Through medicine and science, we know more about death and how to forestall it than ever before. Yet we know little about how to prepare people for the inevitable. The church is a community that teaches people how to live well by teaching them how to measure their days. Put another way, when the church incarnates a culture of resurrection—one that recognizes the inevitability of death but not its triumph—it teaches people how to die well.

Have we become so obsessed with living well or living comfortably that we have lost sight of dying well as part of the spiritual act of the believer? If we have neglected this, does it betray a lack of confidence in the providential guidance of God in all seasons of life?

The article is very thoughtful, and I heartily recommend it.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

The Prayer of Suffering

Last night in our Tuesday Night Discipleship Study we continued through Richard Foster’s book, Prayer, and came to the topic of “The Prayer of Suffering.” I honestly didn’t know what to expect when I started the chapter, but it wasn’t long before I found what Foster had to say to be compelling and entirely in accord with Scripture and life with Christ.

The “Prayer of Suffering” is not a prayer to have more suffering in life (Christians are not masochists) and it is not even the prayer to eliminate suffering from our lives. It is a prayer – or even more appropriately, a way of living life with others under Christ – of redemptive suffering. Foster says, “Here we give to God the various difficulties and trials that we face, asking him to use them redemptively. We also voluntarily take into ourselves the griefs and sorrows of others in order to set them free.” (pg. 217)

Our ultimate example of redemptive suffering is Christ on the cross. There, he took the pinnacle of unjust punishment, bore our sins, and died in our place. Through the suffering of the cross, Christ redeemed not just our eternal souls, but all the pain and suffering we endure in this life. I think it can be said that without the cross and the empty tomb, suffering is nothing but the nihilistic struggle it feels like, but with Christ it can be a vehicle for our redemption.

And it isn’t just Christ. The apostle Paul wrote that he endured all kinds of things in order to proclaim the Gospel, and that he rejoiced in that the Gospel was proclaimed in spite of his own pain (Col. 1:24-29; Phil 3:8-11). Then he encouraged us to do the same as we go through life with those we love (Galatians 6:2, Romans 12:15).

There is so much more to be said, but I encourage you if you are a disciple of Christ to learn what it means to live through your suffering and the suffering of those you love in a redemptive way. We keep our eyes and lives on Christ the author and perfector of our faith who, for the joy that was set before him, endured the cross and despised its shame (Heb 12:1-2).

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Bonhoeffer - A Man for our Time

One Christian theologian recently remarked that one of the problem with the modern church is that we are not producing any “scholar saints.” These are the leaders who love God with all their minds in provocative and even ground-breaking ways, and live exemplary lives revealing the glory of God to the world. An example of one such Christian leader in recent memory might be Dietrich Bonhoeffer. A much publicized biography by Eric Metaxas aims at recovering a holistic view of his life and remind us of how important a figure like Bonhoeffer is right now.

From a Crosswalk article by Kelley Mathews, Metaxas notes:

"The singular thing about Bonhoeffer that recommends him to this generation is that he calls us to a closer, authentic walk with Jesus, not just a merely religious walk, but one of true obedience to Jesus Christ," says Metaxas. "His life asks us, 'How do we live as authentic Christians all the way, in the face of struggles and evil?'"

"He is a model for living the authentic Christian life. Bonhoeffer is the ultimate example of someone who is discerning and obedient to Jesus in the deepest way. I believe that God gives us illustrations from history, and the life of Bonhoeffer is one of those. He is an example to believers of what it looks like to negotiate the difficulties of life, to deal with evil as a serious, devout, mature Christian."

From the handful of things I know about Bonhoeffer, here are a couple of thoughts on why his influence is so important to us.

First: his scholarship. His academic and pastoral work ranges from rather technical works on ethics and ecclesiology to more popular writings on discipleship and his letters from prison. The more I read works like “The Cost of Discipleship,” the more convinced that their enduring qualities owe more to the deeper work in the background done by the author than we may realize.

Second: his pastoral leadership. He was radically separate from the mainstream Lutheran influence of his day, which eventually required him to form community for those who were leaving comfortable lives to join in following Christ in uncomfortable ways. The Christian church today needs iconoclasts who are unafraid to disconnect themselves from what Luther called the “Babylonian captivity.” Bonhoeffer was that man for his time.

Third: his martyrdom. He wasn’t a dissenter for the sake of dissent. He clung to Christ when the price was as high as it could possibly be. Do we loosen our grip on Christ too easily? Do we spend more time than we are willing to admit straddling lines of discipleship to Christ and to the world?

There is much more to be said about Bonhoeffer, so I look forward to getting into Metaxas’ book.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Holy Reason, Happy Human

I have mentioned that our LHC book club recently read Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo. After reading the book a second time (and being thoroughly impressed a second time), I read up on Anselm and the book, and discovered it was quite the theological and philosophical revolution at the time. One of the passages that stuck out to me was the first chapter of the second book titled, “How man was made holy by God, so as to be happy in the enjoyment of God.” The first few sentences are provocative.

It ought not to be disputed that rational nature was made holy by God, in order to be happy in enjoying Him. For to this end is it rational, in order to discern justice and injustice, good and evil, and between the greater and the lesser good. Otherwise it was made rational in vain. But God made it not rational in vain. Wherefore, doubtless, it was made rational for this end. In like manner is it proved that the intelligent creature received the power of discernment for this purpose, that he might hate and shun evil, and love and choose good, and especially the greater good. For else in vain would God have given him that power of discernment, since man’s discretion would be useless unless he loved and avoided according to it. But it does not befit God to give such power in vain. It is, therefore, established that rational nature was created for this end, viz., to love and choose the highest good supremely, for its own sake and nothing else;…

What strikes me is the capacity that is made holy by God in order for us to be happy in him: our rationality. We were given this capacity for a purpose. It is intended to judge rightly between right and wrong, good and evil, and even make distinctions between lesser and greater goods. The exercise of my mental capacities is an act of sanctification, or redemption, of holiness to the end that I may be happy in God.

Put the other way around, I am happiest in God when this capacity is used to its utmost. The highest use my reason can attain is to supremely love the supreme good – God. And I learn to love him for his own sake and not for what he does or does not do.

Do I love God with all my mind?

This Story Couldn't Get Any Weirder...Could It?

Now it is being reported (here, here) that Ted Haggard's new church, St. James, is holding a lottery on the first week with the offering. If your name is picked, you get 10% of what is given that morning.

I'm going to stop now before I say something unbecoming.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Here We Go...

This guy is drunk on publicity. Who but polititians, publicists and actors call press conferences to announce their next career move?


It is a new church. Shocker.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

God Cannot Lie - Yet He is Perfect

It is impossible for God to lie (Hebrews 6:18). We have been reading through Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo for LHC book club, and in it he wrestles with the issue that there are things God does not/cannot do and is still perfect and worthy of praise. The specific issue in his work is the fact that God “cannot” lie – not, does not or will not, but cannot. How can it be that there is something (maybe several things?) God cannot do, and yet remain perfect in his being – omniscient, omnipotent, etc.?

Using lying as the example, here are couple of thoughts about answering this question. (Below, I only speak of lying in the derogatory sense of “deliberate misguidance” and not the more delicate notions of lies that have good consequences, lies of ignorance, or any other shade of the act of lying.)

There are some capacities we gain or dispositions we develop through life that make us better people – we are greater because of them. When we learn how to perform certain mathematical functions, or learn that knowledge is better than deliberate ignorance, or we learn that sharing is better than selfishness, we become better and more capable people because of them. Then there are capacities or dispositions that take the exact opposite course in the maturing life. Infants are inherently selfish, so as we lose that disposition, we mature. So understood, the capacity or disposition to lie falls into the second category. Our ability to lie and God’s inability to lie make us less mature and him perfectly mature.

The disposition or capacity to lie does not make a character better, but worse. Lying is one less disposition/capacity God has, but as such, that makes God’s nature more perfect, not less. My disposition to lie makes my character less perfect, and the greater my disposition to lie, the worse my character becomes. Part of the growth, maturity, even spiritual formation of a human includes the disposition of truth-telling becoming stronger than lying.

Hence, God’s utter inability to lie speaks to his complete perfection. God cannot lie because his character is not tainted at all with the vice of lying.

I have so far used the words “capacity” and “disposition” to describe the ability to lie, but I now want to cross “capacity” off the list and assert that only truth-telling is a capacity. Lying is a corruption of the capacity, and thus is a vicious and corrosive disposition. The virtue of truth-telling is corrupted by the degree to which I am disposed to lie.

Truth-telling and lying are not the exact opposites of the same moral coin; they are not a ying-yang of human interaction. Truth-telling is better understood as the ubiquitous and necessary requirement for all human interaction, and hence the foundational virtue. In all human interaction we rightly begin with the assumption of truth-telling unless we have a reason to believe otherwise. And using those instances in which we have reason to suspect malfeasance as examples, we can quickly see why the universal assumption of lying would be devastating to relationships. Virtues (moral goods) are logically prior to vices (moral evils) and are hence properly understood as capacities. As Augustine put it, moral evils are only privations of the good, and hence are only corrosive dispositions and not capacities.

In addition, God freely cannot lie. When presented with the idea that it is “impossible” for God to lie, we are tempted to think that God is out of luck with his own free will, and thus is not free with regard to lying and truth-telling. But, in the context set so far, God’s virtue of truth-telling is perfect and he is complete in his freedom to not lie.

There is no external force outside of God that coerces him to always tell the truth and never lie, thus making his truth-telling some kind of nefarious necessity. But instead of arguing along the lines of external causes, we see in our construal so far that God is, within his own character, perfect with regard to truth-telling.

Imagine your progression from more lying to more truth-telling as your character improves. Let us say that you have set the personal and spiritual goal of becoming more Christ-like, and through the exercise of the spiritual disciplines and the work of the Holy Spirit in your life, your desire to lie in any and every situation diminishes over time. With each step along the way, you are still able to lie all you want to, which increasingly is less and less. You lie less not primarily because you are less free to lie, but because you are more free and more willing to use your freedom to tell the truth. Taken to a logical extreme, you can imagine a point at which you will not lie (it will become “impossible” for you to lie) exactly because your freedom and willingness to tell the truth becomes complete. And though, arguably, no human on earth will reach that point of virtuous perfection, God stands as the model of that very thing.

So how is it that it is impossible for God to do something like lie, and still be perfect in his being? It is because certain dispositions are a detriment to a virtuous character and for God not to have those is in fact proof of his perfect and magnificent being.